When Minnesotans suspect their elected leaders or civil servants are hiding something, they can turn to a tiny state agency for help.

The Information Policy Analysis Division sounds like a bureaucratic parody. But the agency known as IPAD serves a real purpose. It helps enforce the state’s public records and open meetings law by issuing legal opinions.

Those opinions are nonbinding, but they often prod agencies into coughing up information or shame elected officials who have been meeting in private.

IPAD is now at risk of losing what little visibility it has. Last year, the agency issued six advisory opinions. That’s down from 20 in 2014 and a peak of 96 in 2001, during the Gov. Jesse Ventura administration.

In 2012, the agency issued one opinion for about three requests it received. In 2015 and 2016, that number was about 1 in 8.

One of the 42 requesters rejected last year was Dr. Brian Zelickson, a Minneapolis dermatologist.

Zelickson was trying to get the name of a man whose teenage son caused a bike collision during the Tour de Tonka bicycle race in last August. The man reported the crash to the race organizer, the Minnetonka Public Schools, but the district wouldn’t give Zelickson the name because school officials said it was “social recreational data,” which the law says can be kept private. IPAD declined to weigh in with an opinion.

“They basically shut me down,” Zelickson said.

IPAD also turned down a request from state Reps. Dale Lueck and Dan Fabian, two Republicans denied information about the outcome of a personnel investigation at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It declined to rule on a man’s contention that the Kasson City Council was meeting behind closed doors without giving any reason, which the law requires.

It also refused to weigh in on the request from Paul Grabitske, a lawyer in Mankato, to rule that a local school district violated the law when it failed to respond to his data requests for seven weeks. Grabitske said it is clear to him that IPAD is operating differently than it did during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, when it issued 25 to 78 opinions each year.

Administration Commissioner Matt Massman, who signs the advisory opinions, said he doesn’t want to issue a new opinion if one of the old ones has already answered the question. That way, the decisions are consistent across administrations. Massman said that about 1,000 opinions are available online.

It’s also a matter of efficiency, he said. With four employees and a budget of $493,000, the IPAD staff will often try to resolve the conflict with a phone call, reminding a government official of the law.

“The goal, getting there as quickly as possible, the informal process actually gets to government transparency quite often more quickly than the formal process, if we can avail ourselves of existing opinions,” Massman said.

Here’s the problem: The digital transformation of government means all sorts of new issues are coming up that IPAD isn’t addressing. Meanwhile, some of the same problems, such as agencies dragging their feet, persist.

Then there’s the reality that an advisory opinion can be freely ignored, Massman noted.

“The commissioner has no authority in those situations to compel compliance,” he said.

He pointed out that IPAD’s staff does training for government officials, and it also helped 2,135 “customers” — elected officials, public employees and citizens — last year.

But by staying in the background, instead of using its public voice, IPAD risks disappearing altogether. Just when it is needed most.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.